Rum, rum, hooray for rum! Who was ever too blasé for rum. Make this a night for rum! If we have to fight, let's fight for rum!*
Sorry, sorry, enough of that.
We who love rum are very lucky people. It's a category of spirits that offers many wonderful values—bottles that taste like they should cost way more than they actually do. You can very easily find great rums, both white and dark, under $20, and today, I'll introduce you to a few of my favorites.
(Unless otherwise noted, all prices current in various NYC-area liquor stores at the time of writing, and all prices are for a standard 750-ml bottle. Also, unless otherwise noted, all of these rums are bottled at 80 proof, or 40% alcohol by volume. Finally, if you need a refresher on the basics of rum, slide over here for more.)
Angostura 5 Year ($17.99)
I'm listing these rums alphabetically, but I have to say that Angostura 5 might be my favorite rum on this list. Most Americans generally think of Angostura as a bitters company, but the Trinidadian distillery is one of the largest rum producers in the Caribbean. The Angostura 5 was a revelation to me the first time I had it; I was really amazed by how good it was for such a relatively low price. Sure, there are better (pricier) rums on the market, and as you go upscale in the Angostura line, you'll find some rich, delicious bottlings, especially the Angostura 1824 ... but then, none of those are under $20. The 5 Year is, and it's a beauty. It presents flavors of toffee, caramel, and chocolate, with hints of warm spices, such as cinnamon and nutmeg. Try this in an Old Fashioned, especially if your simple syrup is made from Demerara or turbinado sugar.
Appleton Special Gold ($16.99)
Appleton's entry-level dark rum is light in flavor, but still tasty. It's noticeably younger and lighter than the Appleton Estate V/X (which, at $21.99, just barely missed the cutoff for this post). If you're looking for a mixing rum, Appleton Special does the job very well. Though it's not quite intense enough to stand up to a really spicy ginger beer, it pairs well with fruit juices and cola, and it tastes great in a daiquiri or a Cuba Libre.
Barbancourt White Rhum ($19.99)
A great introduction to rhums agricole, which are made from freshly pressed sugarcane juice instead of molasses. Agricoles generally taste funkier and grassier than traditional rums. Barbancourt's entry-level rum offers hints of that funk and grassiness, but it's not as pronounced as in other agricoles. When I was exploring the best rum to put in a daiquiri, I found I liked the version with Barbancourt White Rhum quite well, even though it wasn't the overall favorite. Barbancourt's older rhums are better sippers than this 4-year-old is, but this youthful bottling is quite good in cocktails—crisp but still complex.
Barbancourt's three-star, 4 dark rhum is also fantastic, and also just within our budget, at $19.99.
Cruzan Light Aged Rum ($12.99)
Cruzan has a few bottlings under the $20 mark: the light, a blackstrap, and a couple of flavored rums. I've tried the light and the blackstrap; of the two, I prefer the light. Blackstrap is a bit of an acquired taste, and I've yet to fully acquire it. Blackstrap comes on strong with heady aromas of molasses and coffee, and the molasses notes follow through into the flavors of the rum. I find it a little intense.
Cruzan Light, on the other hand, is a smooth, round rum, with mild hints of molasses and a bit of oak from the used bourbon barrels in which it ages.Though it's not a satisfying sipper, it pairs well with fruit juices and is fine in cocktails. If you want an affordable rum for a party, you won't go wrong with this one.
Don Q Cristal Rum ($13.99 / 1 liter)
A Puerto Rican rum made in a style similar to Bacardi (but a few bucks cheaper), Don Q Cristal is a nice, light rum. At 14 bucks a liter, it's probably the best value, ounce for ounce, of any of the rums in this list. It's a good mixer; it makes a fine daiquiri and it works well in other cocktails that call for white rum. I'll admit that during a period in which my wife and I weren't making much money, I drank more than my share of it, on the rocks. It's not a great sipper, but it's okay for that if you're broke.
Don Q's Añejo is also good, at $17.99 for a 750-milliliter bottle, though not quite the bargain the Cristal is.
El Dorado 3 Yr. White Rum ($14.99)
I have only recently discovered the El Dorado line of rums, made in the Demerara style in Guyana. I hate myself for taking so long to come around. El Dorado's rums are fantastic, rich and smooth, chocolaty with a hint of funkiness. Every version of El Dorado is a bargain at its price. The 8-year, at $25, tastes like it should cost twice as much, and the 15-year is one of the best things—food or beverage—I've ever tasted in 40-something years on earth, no hyperbole. But neither the 8 nor the 15 meet our price requirements. The 3-year does. It's an aged rum, filtered to smooth out the youthful flavors and remove the colors imparted by the barrel. It's clearly in the El Dorado house style: chocolatey and aromatic, with a hint of funk. It's a surprisingly good sipper, but it shines in cocktails. If you like piña coladas (and getting caught in the rain), this is for you.
Flor de Caña Extra Seco 4 Yr. White Rum ($14.99)
Dry, crisp, and mildly fruity, Flor de Caña is an excellent rum for its price. Flor de Caña has a long history in Nicaragua, dating back to the 1890s. The Extra Seco is light bodied, with a round, smooth taste and a medium finish. I find that it tastes pretty good just on ice, but it also mixes very well. I enjoy it in a daiquiri, but it would also taste fantastic in a mojito or an El Presidente.
Gosling's Black Seal Rum ($18.99)
The darkest, richest rum on the list, Gosling's is made from a blend of rums (both pot- and column-stilled) imported into Bermuda and aged three years in former bourbon barrels. The rum tastes of caramel and burnt sugar with hints of vanilla and butterscotch. I don't usually enjoy sipping it, but it's great in cocktails, including both the Cuba Libre and the Dark 'n Stormy. If you're mixing the latter, though, get a sharp and peppery ginger beer, or the rum will overwhelm it. Barritt's is traditional, though Gosling's now also markets its own ginger beer, especially formulated for mixing with its rum.
Plantation Grande Reserve Barbados Rum ($18.99)
Rich and fruity, Plantation is another entry on this list that tastes like it should cost much more than it does. The Plantation brand bottles rums from all over the Caribbean, plus Guyana and Nicaragua. This particular rum is from Barbados, as you probably guessed from the name. At five years of age, it has notes of banana, burnt sugar, dark chocolate, and caramel. It's great on its own but just as good mixed in punches, an Old Fashioned, or a Mai Tai. The Plantation website also suggests pairing it with a cigar, and I can see that working fantastically, if you're a cigar smoker.
Ron Abuelo 7 Yr. Rum ($19.99)
Abuelo has a couple of bottlings that would fit on this list: the Abuelo Añejo is about 5 years old and retails for about 14 bucks. It's a decent rum, and a good sipper for the price, but nothing special. Spend the extra 6 Washingtons and get the 7 year. It's rich and smooth and has a long finish, especially for an under-$20 brand. As with just about everything else on this list, it mixes well and also tastes great just with a little ice.
*(With apologies to Harold Arlen)